Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Regal Butter on Royal Toast

I know I'm addicted to NPR. You don't have to tell me again. And yes, my mother has every reason to make fun of me for rolling my eyes when she would talk about something she heard on NPR at the dinner table.

But seriously, it's hard not to love it after spending a day there. It's like watching a 6-hour episode of the West Wing in real life. Just tons of smart and funny people saying tons of smart and funny things. And any organization that has 70,000 music CDs on the premises is good by me. There's also NPR goes Gaga.

Not to mention their exclusive first listen is pretty frickin' sweet. Recently I've checked out new albums by Nels Cline, the New Pornographers, and the National, all of which are now on my Princeton Record Exchange watch list. And this week, NPR is hosting a preview of the new album by drummer John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, Royal Toast.

In terms of name ridiculosity, the Claudia Quintet certainly one up's the Ben Folds Five. On this record at least, there are no less than six members in the quintet, none of them named Claudia. The instrumentation's a bit off-kilter too, with the sounds of accordion and vibraphone swirling around tenor sax, bass and drums(with the addition of piano this time around). Over their near-decade together as a band, Hollenbeck and co have staked out a unique musical territory, somewhere in the murk that separates jazz, indie pop, and chamber music. Improvised solos are seamlessly inserted into heavily notated pieces, while Mr. Hollenbeck lays down an almost-danceable groove.

Their self-titled debut album was notable for its hard edges separated by ample space. Accordions, vibes and saxes don't blend very well, and so the music was built on interlocking and angular melodies, all jumping into the foreground simultaneously. Royal Toast marks a sonic mellowing out of sorts. Gary Versace's piano fills in a lot of the frequencies between the bass and lead instruments, smoothing over the music's stark lines. After playing with this particular combination of instruments for so long, Hollenbeck is uncannily attuned to how they sound together and so Royal Toast is oh so carefully orchestrated. The instruments jump in and out of the mix gracefully, creating blissful sonic landscapes. In a lot of ways it's reminiscent of good pop production, except for being totally acoustic and all.

Especially on Royal Toast, Hollenbeck's compositions sound like an audio analog of Charlie Kaufman's films. They're subdued, a bit cerebral and carefully controlled, but with a good dose of deadpan humor thrown in. On the two part tune Keramag, Hollenbeck begins with an admirably sloppy drum solo; the drums aren't falling down the stairs by accident, he's dropping them at exact times. Then suddenly the rest of the band jumps in and it all turns into a broke-down dance party, with the backbeat uncomfortably loose. This may be the only time the music gets louder than a dull roar, but that restraint only brings the listener in more. Despite a harmonic palette and gain level reminiscent of ambient music, Royal Toast certainly isn't an album that fades into the background. There are just too many little jokes and "aha" moments to find in this lush music to tune it out.

So pull out your good pair of headphones and head on over to NPR to check out the Claudia Quintet and Royal Toast.

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